• Waiting on Easter

    I was raised Roman Catholic which means that I cannot go through Holy Week without feeling the urge to do something. Go to mass everyday. Attend the stations of the cross. And, of course, Holy Thursday communion (the mass most likely to make you cry every year). Even after I left Catholicism, Holy Week continued to be a time of increased spiritual activity. Get some palm leaves. Hold a fake seder. Do a special devotional. Consider doing footwashing with the kids. Cut back on Friday’s dinner and call that sort of like fasting in honor of the day. Things like that.

    I don’t know why other people do these things, but my urge was always driven by a need to make it real. To make those strange, confusing, important events of 2000 years ago seem real. Because maybe if those things become real to me, then God could be real enough for me to be satisfied.

    The thing with religion and scriptures is that they take on this flatness after a while. We no longer understand the elements of the story well enough to really understand it, but we keep repeating it anyways. Which makes it unreal. So we try various ways of putting flesh and bones on the stories. We meditate on the cross. We dress our preschool son up as a scourged Jesus on the cross. If you’re particularly desperate, you allow yourself to be faux-crucified so you can experience it all yourself. Or watch a gory movie about it. (I’ve never seen Passion of the Christ, btw. I was raised Catholic, so I just didn’t see the need.)

    At any rate, this year, I find that my urge to participate in holy week has disappeared. This morning I wondered if I should plan something for dinner tonight with the kids and I thought, “no. It’s too sad and ugly a story to go through right now. I’m not up for sad and ugly right now.” Continue reading

  • Raising Moral Kids, Pt 1

    I thought this was a great article in the NYT about what researchers have to say about raising moral kids. A lot of it is stuff we all know is true (but hope we can find a way around). So it’s interesting to learn that some of our old parenting gems aren’t just theoretically true, but that they’ve been proven true as well. Which is particularly comforting for some of us who went against the grain, did these things and discovered that raising a good person doesn’t automatically turn them into leaders of industry. Those are two different skills sets, it turns out.

    Anyhow, the article covered a lot of ground, but I have a take-away I wanted to pass on today and one more for tomorrow. And one more the day after that. I decided that two 2000 word posts in one day might be a bit much, so I’m splitting it up.

    Besides, it’s an important topic. I genuinely believe that the way we raise our kids is what will ultimately change the world. For my part, I believe that raising kind, caring, moral children should be just as important as raising kids who can get into college. Or who can still find her purity ring to wear home from college. More important, really. But if we believe that, we have to live it. So, here’s today’s research-supported bit of parenting wisdom:

    Your kids will do what you do, not what you say.

    I know, crazy, right? Who knew? It’s not like every single one of us is walking around feeling guilty as hell knowing that our kids will inevitably struggle with many of the same imperfections as we do. And that I am completely helpless to stop it because I am simply not capable of being perfect enough to keep it from happening. So I lie to myself and think, “they’ll take my advice rather than following my instructions. After all, why would they want to end up like me? That’s got to be a powerful deterrent, right?”. . . Or maybe that’s just me. It’s probably just me.

    Anyway, the good news is that what you do right has more power than you probably realized. Continue reading

  • The Injured Easter Bird

    Once upon a time, there was a farmer who decided not to go to church on Easter Morning. He’d been going his whole life, but a few years earlier he had decided that he was old enough to stop pretending that what went on in church was important enough to get up early for on his only day off.

    This year his wife had harrumphed when he announced that he wasn’t even going to keep up the bare minimum of appearances required to be a Chreaster (a person who attends church only on Christmas and Easter). The whole thing was ridiculous, he said in his calm, practical way. If there was a God, which there could be, despite the utter lack of evidence, why would he or she care so much what we did? Why didn’t God just show up in the sky every few years to confirm his existence and provide some clear, practical instructions for us to follow? Why all the drama? Why ask us to believe that some guy who probably didn’t bathe regularly was actually God and that his gruesome death provides for our salvation? Ridiculous.

    He suspected that his wife thought much the same, but held on to religion almost out of superstition. Sort of like knocking on wood when you say something that could come back to haunt you. You know it can’t really do anything to protect you, but it’s such a small gesture to make. Might as well not take the risk in case there is some truth to it after all.

    So his wife rolled her eyes at his little outburst and got up for Easter service all by herself. She didn’t put any particular effort into being quiet about it, though. She knew he was a light sleeper and had been awake from the moment threw back her covers with a little extra force while getting out of bed and went to the shower humming loudly. He said not a word through her entire performance, but she knew he was only pretending to be asleep when she left. And came back in to grab something she forgot before leaving again. Just to be sure he wasn’t actually still asleep when she left.

    After the third time his wife had left, the farmer waited a long moment before peeking out the window to watch her car pull out the driveway. He’d said his piece and the conversation was over. But he knew that sometimes his wife needed a little time to adjust to not getting her way. Better to feign sleep than get drawn into a pointless argument over it.

    Just as his wife’s car drove past the mailbox, a bird flew right into the window he was looking out of. The farmer was so startled, it took him a moment to realize what had happened. He looked down and saw a small downy woodpecker laying on its back on the ground below the window. He tried looking to see if the bird was breathing. He was too far away to tell, of course. But just as he realized that he’d have to go down and look if he wanted to know, he remembered the barn cats. He quickly put on a shirt and rummaged around the top shelf of the closet until he found an old shoe box. Continue reading

  • Becoming People of the Story

    Christian theology, while it’s often thought of as an argument over who’s right and who is wrong, can actually be understood as the stories we use to explain the reality of God, the reality of human existence and how to live in right relationship with God, neighbor and self. Using the bible and varying doses of church tradition and reality, we’ve written thousands of different stories, each purporting to be THE Christian story. Except the idea that any of us has found THE Christian story is preposterous.

    Jesus said there was one narrow path to him and we’d know we’d found it by its fruit. And I can say with confidence that not a damn one of the stories Christians have told produced fruit worthy of my God. None of them is good enough. Some are clearly better than others, but all of them are wrong.

    At best, the different theologies are like placeholders, explaining the best we’ve been able to figure out thus far. At worst, they are ideological prisons keeping people enslaved to a story utterly inferior to the real one. But none of the stories deserve our allegiance. Only Christ does.

    In Islam, Christians are called “People of the Book”. Jews also call themselves “People of the Book”. I think we need to become “People of the Story”. Continue reading

  • My Amazing Discipline Trick!

    One of these days, I’ll have to tell you about my oldest son Noah. He was really something. Even my mom didn’t want to watch him. And she had 9 kids. But that’s a kind of long story for another day. Suffice it to say he was challenging.

    One of the things which made Noah particularly difficult is that he simply wasn’t responsive to punishment. He wasn’t vulnerable to any sort of trickery. “Flattery will get you no where” may well have been his first complete sentence. Time out was me dealing with a two hour fight and I’m sorry, you don’t get to just make me miserable for two hours straight like that. Day after day. Just . . . nothing I tried really worked. He was getting better over time, but good Lord, at the rate we were going he was going to be having temper tantrums on his honeymoon.

    I think it was while reading some book on positive parenting that I came across the idea which actually worked. And it’s the discipline trick I’ve turned to almost exclusively with all my other kids. Because it works. AND it teaches them skills that they need to be good, healthy people. But it’s so simple, you might think I’m crazy. Continue reading

  • So Much For Soft Hearted and Squishy Headed

    There’s a popular stereotype which says that people who worry about the homeless, racism, poverty and other social ills have soft hearts and squishy heads. Those who do not share their concerns will often accuse them of abandoning logic for emotionalism. Because emotions are for silly women, queers and other people not to be taken seriously, of course.

    However, my friend Sonya (hi, Sonya!) recently passed on a study which shows that, scientifically speaking, this stereotype is dead wrong. Researchers using brain scans found that rather than being driven by emotions, people who are concerned with issues of social justice make greater use of the logic centers of their brains than people who do not:

    Using a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain-scanning device, the team studied what happened in the participants’ brains as they judged videos depicting behavior that was morally good or bad. For example, they saw a person put money in a beggar’s cup or kick the beggar’s cup away. The participants were asked to rate on a scale how much they would blame or praise the actor seen in the video. People in the study also completed questionnaires that assessed cognitive and emotional empathy, as well as their justice sensitivity.

    As expected, study participants who scored high on the justice sensitivity questionnaire assigned significantly more blame when they were evaluating scenes of harm, Decety said. They also registered more praise for scenes showing a person helping another individual.

    But the brain imaging also yielded surprises. During the behavior-evaluation exercise, people with high justice sensitivity showed more activity than average participants in parts of the brain associated with higher-order cognition. Brain areas commonly linked with emotional processing were not affected.

    The conclusion was clear, Decety said: “Individuals who are sensitive to justice and fairness do not seem to be emotionally driven. Rather, they are cognitively driven.”

    This goes a long way towards explaining some of the facebook conversations I’ve had lately. You know the kind; someone saying something idiotic responds to factual evidence that their claims are wrong by jumping to their next talking point or looking for some petty inconsistency in your argument rather than deal with reality. They aren’t being logical, but are driven by the emotional imperative to avoid being wrong. Ahem.

    You can read more about the study (conducted at the University of Chicago) here.

  • The Quality of Mercy

    I want to follow up on that last post with an account of a sermon given by a Christian man who is doing what he can to change our broken system. His name is Mark Osler. He used to be a federal prosecutor in Detroit and sent many men, particularly, black men to prison for drug crimes. He did it with the best of intentions, motivated by a genuine love for his home town which was falling apart before his eyes. But eventually, after he left the job to take a position at Baylor University in Waco Texas, he began to question the justice of what he had been involved in. He was seeking ways to bring his work and his faith into proper relationship with each other, and in the process has become one of the most influential lawyers working to change our drug sentencing laws and bring a different sort of justice to people caught up in the drug trade. Justice which is joined with mercy, not justice which demands the sacrifice of the lives of young men of color.

    “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh,” Osler reads before getting to the less frequently cited sentences. “But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort. Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn. Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.”

    Osler pauses. “Sometimes,” he says with a grin, “the Bible is not very reassuring for a fairly affluent straight white guy from Edina,” referring to the Minneapolis suburb where he and his family live. “But that is me, and this is one of those times. In this passage, Jesus is talking about turning everything—everything—upside down. The poor will have the kingdom, while the rich will face woe. The hungry will be filled, while those who are full will be hungry. Those who are reviled will be blessed, and it’s bad when all speak well of you. This teaching, this idea of turning everything upside down, is dangerous.”

    Continue reading

  • Black and White Drug Dealers in America

    Late last Saturday night, my husband and some friends were driving home when there was an accident a ways ahead of them. A piece of debris from the accident punctured the gas tank of our family’s only vehicle. Which, of course, we had used our last pennies to pay off the day before. Because, of course.

    On the upside, one of my husband’s friends has stepped up and is driving him to and from the bus stop while they work on replacing the damaged gas tank. He took my husband to buy the replacement, brought over the tools needed and has spent at least 6 hours so far on our cold, filthy garage floor helping my husband remove the damaged tank. Obviously, he’s a very good friend.

    However, about 15 years ago, he was our town drug dealer. He sold everything, but particularly cocaine and meth. And he had become a meth user himself. He says that the first time he tried meth, he felt so good that he thought, “this is what I want to do with the rest of my life.” Big ambitions.

    He was still in high school at the time and one day, just a few months short of his 18th birthday, he was caught on school grounds with a large quantity of drugs and cash in his car. At this point, his fate was in the hands of the county prosecutor.

    There were enough drugs and cash in the car that it was obvious he was the source of a lot of the drugs being used in the area. And he had been found with them on school property, during school hours. He was close enough to his 18th birthday to be charged as an adult with multiple felonies and sent away for a long time. In fact, the DA and the local police would be able to make some real political hay with the case. Plus could hold a press conference with the drugs and cash laid out on a table, announcing that they had just taken out a major player in the local drug trade. Continue reading